The Groundwork Waltz

How to achieve hindquarter control, softness, and shoulder control as if you were dancing.

Since riding is your goal, let’s practice some groundwork steps that apply directly to your riding. You’ll focus on moving one spot at a time in a specific direction, then you can observe how this action affects your horse’s performance, or what your horse does as a result of moving that one spot. The key here is to become an observer, and also to realize that many things are happening at one time as a result of one thing you’re doing.

By putting the Spot, Direction, Pressure, Release formula to work, you gain more control of your horse. It improves any horse’s behavior in all areas. It can be a foundation to teach your horse to lead better, perform better under saddle, and become softer and more responsive to your commands.

During this series of exercises, you’ll be asking your horse to move many body parts for you. You’re still only asking him to move one part at a time, though,
by focusing on one spot at a time.

What You Need
Time. Give these exercises an hour and a half of honest effort, and you will find you have a different horse. The first step in the exercises takes the longest, but it will be worth the effort because of the results. See these exercises through to the end, don’t give up, don’t change, hang in there! These exercises set the foundation for many levels of performance and control.

Equipment. Although this exercise can be started even with a foal in just a halter, in most cases you should have a bridle on your horse with a snaffle bit. A dressage whip is a useful tool. It also helps to put a marker between your feet. This can be a cone, a clod of dirt, a plastic water bottle, or anything that will help you remember to keep your own feet still and not walk around the horse. The horse is the one who does the walking.

Safe positioning. Never stand behind your horse or within kicking range. A great working position is on the side at the horse’s shoulder about even with the stirrups.

Formula specifics. SPOT #1 will be on the top of your horse’s tail. The DIRECTION you want to move this spot will be away from you. The PRESSURE will be direct, even, consistent pressure on the rein. The RELEASE is an instant stop of that pressure, giving a “Yes!” answer to the horse the moment you think the tail will move away far enough for the front foot closest to you to stop, even if it’s just a momentary pause.

Step 1
This first step lays the foundation, and you’ll be amazed at all your horse can do by the end! You’ll observe these changes and more, and your horse will be able to do the following:

• Stop better.
• Have better directional control.
• Achieve better speed control.
• Be more responsive to the reins.
• Achieve less lateral flexion before responding to the reins.
• Get more response from lighter cues.
• Perform hindquarter diagonals.
• Perform hindquarter side passing.
• Disengage the inside hind leg.
• Engage the outside hind leg.
• Perform lead changes that start from the hindquarters.
• Have better hindquarter and shoulder control.
• Perform turns on the forehand.
• Have the beginning steps of haunches in, half passes, and full passes.
• Learn a much faster way to teach the mouth to respond to the bit, softening the nose with less lateral flexion.
• Lower your horse’s head.
• Soften your horse’s neck.
• Start to work on breaking at the poll.
• Begin to soften and move the shoulder away on the ground.

First, you’ll teach your horse to consistently walk forward 7 or 8 steps. Put your hand on the rein next to the slobber strap (or about 6 inches from the bit). Make a “kissing” sound and tap (never hit) your horse on the top of his hip for a “go forward” cue. Keep your own feet still. Cue your horse to walk a quarter, half, or full circle around you. Stop him by putting constant, steady pressure on the rein and moving the tail away from you. Remember to hold the rein as if you are holding onto a dance partner’s hand. Don’t force your horse, just ask him to work with you. Then change sides and repeat this exercise until-when you “kiss” and before you raise the whip-the horse begins to walk forward.

As your horse continues to walk forward, slowly put constant pressure on the rein and look at the horse’s tail (your spot #1). As soon as the tail starts to move away, promptly release the rein. Praise your horse and switch sides. Repeat, praise, and switch sides after every successful try.

If the front foot closest to you doesn’t stop, pick up the rein again and exert steady, gentle pressure until the tail moves over more and the front foot stops. If the horse begins walking again, this is okay-just repeat this step until the horse stops long enough for you to comfortably move to the other side.

Things you don’t care about. Your goal with this exercise is to move your horse’s tail, so concentrate only on that. Don’t worry if he opens his mouth or raises his head, pulls on the bridle or shuffles his feet. Your only priority is to pick up the rein and move the tail to the left or right. Don’t discourage him by asking for too much too fast. Let him walk forward and around you for at least 6 to 8 steps before asking the tail to move over.

Working on the tail is actually the fastest way to get head and neck control. Eventually he’ll bring his head down, close his mouth, and relax his neck-but don’t worry about any of that just now. Those are by-products that will come after about 30 to 45 minutes of consistent work.

Visualizing. Tremendous parallels exist between this exercise with your horse and dancing. Your dance partner doesn’t need multiple “aids” or lots of steering wheels. The firmness of your hand on the rein is exactly as you would hold your partner’s hand if you were beginning to teach him or her to dance. Your horse’s mouth should feel exactly as soft as that person’s hand would feel in yours as you guide him or her around a dance floor. Get it out of your mind that you’re working with your horse. Think about holding onto your wife’s, your husband’s, or your child’s hand while teaching them to dance.

Possible pitfalls. As you begin this exercise, the horse really doesn’t know what you’re asking or exactly what he’s supposed to do with his body. The odds are good that he’ll step toward you or move into you. In this case, you’re allowed to move your feet. Step out of the way, get him going forward again, don’t get sidetracked, stick to your lesson, and focus on the tail. Toward the end of the first hour, he won’t be stepping into you, but you’re working toward this point right now.

Your other challenge is that it may take some self-discipline on your part to keep doing the exercise over and over again for at least a solid hour. Hang in there. You’ll have a different and much more responsive horse at the end, and you’ll learn a major lesson about patience and staying focused as well.

When is enough? After about 10 to 15 minutes of focusing on this exercise, you’ll notice that you don’t have to pull as hard on the rein to get the tail to move over. In about 45 minutes, on an average, it’ll take just a few ounces of pressure on the rein to move the tail and get that front foot to stop. You’ll notice that your horse is getting lighter and more responsive to the rein. He’s even bending his head less to the side, and you haven’t even worked on that part yet!

After an hour or so, your horse’s ears will be about level with his withers. If this isn’t the case yet, just stay focused on the exercise until it is. Every horse is different, so be patient and stay focused. This is not an exercise that you’ll need to repeat very often, so do a good job and see it through. You’ll see that his neck will be soft. He’s beginning to step away from you and softening his shoulder away from you, even though all you’ve focused on is the tail!

This part of the lesson may seem to have taken forever because so many things had to happen. But a perfect lesson plan is one where the preceding step teaches the next step, and that’s what you’ve just done.

Step 2
Next, you’ll teach your horse to soften or to hand you his nose. Imagine you’ve just asked someone to dance. You begin to hold out your hand and they respond by reaching for you. You didn’t have to grab their hand and pull it toward you. This is just how we want the horse to respond: we put light, consistent pressure on the rein and the horse moves his head. Your horse’s mouth should feel just like a dance partner’s hand.

The formula. Put SPOT #2 on your horse’s nose. You can use the nostril on your side as a marker. The DIRECTION goal is to move the spot toward you even by half an inch. This is also sometimes called lateral flexion or giving. Walk your horse forward 5 to 6 steps. Put a constant, even, consistent PRESSURE on the reins, pulling slightly toward yourself, but don’t pull his nose to the side. You want the horse to move that way himself.

The nose only has to move toward you half an inch. When you feel that nose move at all, RELEASE the pressure on the rein.

Let the horse walk 3 to 4 more steps. Pick up the rein again and move the tail over until the front foot stops. Release the rein on the tail movement-plan to finish every step during the groundwork with the tail moving over.

Change sides and repeat. It should take only a few minutes for the horse to learn this lesson because the first step taught the second. If he continues to pull on the bridle, go back to the tail exercise until he softens, then try again.

When your horse is solid on this exercise on both sides, it’s time to move on.

Step 3
During this next step, you’ll shorten the time between when your horse starts moving forward and when you ask for his nose. This step actually begins to teach your horse nice transitions and collection work.

Ask your horse to walk forward around you. Let him take as many as 7 steps forward, then ask him to hand you his nose. Release the rein, then let him take 3 or 4 more steps before asking him to move his tail over and stop. Now switch sides.

At this point, we’ll shorten the number of steps your horse takes between moving forward and asking for his nose. So start with 6 steps forward, then ask for the nose. Change sides and repeat. Then it’s 5 steps, then 4, then 3, then 2, then 1, then ask for his nose and begin to move forward again. Let him always move at least 7 steps before asking for his tail to move over. Work on this step for about 5 minutes, give or take a little.

SPOT #3 will be the tip of your horse’s ear on your side. The DIRECTION will be down. The PRESSURE will once again be a constant, even, consistent feel on the reins. The instant you see the tip of the ear begin to go down, RELEASE the rein.

In this next exercise, you practice controlling your horse’s head elevation. This helps in all areas of performance, but also in getting your horse to relax and further soften his neck. When you ask an untrained horse for a change of speed, gait, direction, or momentum, it’s common for him to raise his head, stiffen his neck, stiffen his shoulder, and stick his nose out. In a correct transition or change (say you want to slow down), you want your horse to first soften his nose (not pull on the bridle), lower his head (not raise his head), soften his neck, soften the base of his neck, soften his front legs, and finally slow down. Here you go on your way to teaching all of these things.

Visualizing again. During this exercise, it’s best to visualize that you’re on the horse’s back. Take the left rein in your left hand, pulling back and slightly upward with light, even pressure toward the front of your saddle.

Process. Now ask the horse to walk forward. Take the rein in your hand. Focus on the nose. Ask for the nose to move half an inch toward you, then release the rein. Now pick up the rein a second time and focus on Spot #3 on the tip of the ear. Hold constant pressure until the tip of the ear goes down a quarter of an inch, then release the rein. Repeat this about five times with the horse continuing to move forward, then go to the tail and switch sides. You don’t have to ask for the nose each time you ask the ear to go down, but you always have to ask for the nose at least once each time you switch sides.

Your horse will want to bend his head to the side when dropping his ear. It’s important to keep his head facing straight forward to teach him this exercise. It’ll take you about 10 minutes before you’re consistent at controlling your horse’s ear. Aim to have the tip of his ear about level with his withers. It can be lower, but it should be at least at that level so the horse relaxes the muscles along the underside of his neck and stretches those on top.

Step 4

Another spot. So far, you’ve put spots on your horse’s tail, the tip of his ear, and his nostril. Now you’re going to put SPOT #4 on the base of his neck, right where it connects to his shoulder. You will see wrinkles in his neck as he bends.

Your goal is to bring SPOT #2 (his nose) little by little-even a half an inch at a time-toward SPOT #4 and at the same level. Remember to never start with your goal, just work toward it. If your horse’s nose is down by his knee, start there and little by little bring it toward the base of the neck. Switch sides each time, don’t try to reach your goal on one side first and then the other. Don’t force the horse’s nose toward the spot, just ask and let him move it. This will keep him light and not pulling on the rein.

Process. So, the steps are in the same order. Ask for the nose at the same time you ask your horse to move forward, then check his ear elevation to make sure it’s at the correct height. Then, the third time you put pressure on the rein, begin to bring the two spots together, followed by a release of the rein. The fourth time, pick up the rein and ask the tail to move over. If the nose softens on it’s own and the ear was at the right height, then you touch the rein for the first time to ask the two spots to come together. Cool!

In this exercise, your horse will want to bring his head around to the flat part of his shoulder. Instead, you want it forward of that area, to the base of his neck. Bringing Spot #2 and Spot #4 together enhances your horse’s performance in these ways:

• Changes how he naturally uses his neck.
• Begins to develop his top line.
• Begins to teach him to break at the poll.
• Softens his nose even more.
• Teaches him to hold his head vertical to the ground.
• Teaches the beginnings of collection by bringing his nose back, shortening his entire body, and bringing his hindquarters forward.
• Lightens the load on his front feet and shoulders.
• Begins to soften shoulders and move them on diagonals.
• Softens the lower part of the neck.

What you want in training your horse is to soften muscles so that you can move then around the dance floor. If a muscle is stiff, then it doesn’t move without force. So the goal is to get all the muscles to relax. You need the base of the neck to relax before the shoulders will relax.

Collection. To do this exercise correctly, your horse must “collect” his body by carrying his hind legs more underneath himself, closer to the girth area. This rounds his back so his withers are higher than his tail. He appears to “compress” the distance between his shoulders and hindquarters and has better balance.

This is not a “headset”! Avoid using items like draw reins, martingales, tie downs, or other gimmicky devices as artificial shortcuts to force this posture on your horse! Instead, teach him to use his muscles, to develop a more powerful top line across his back and through his spine, and to shift his weight onto his hindquarters.

When collection is achieved as a natural progression developed from balance and strength, it is a beautiful thing to see!

The last spot. Now, on to the last spot, which is on the shoulder. SPOT #5 can be anyplace on the shoulder or by the withers or on a concho at the front of your saddle.

Again, the steps are in the same order: Ask for the nose, start the horse forward, check the ear elevation, bring the two spots together, then touch the rein one more time while focusing on Spot #5. When this spot even begins to move slightly away from you, release the rein. Then you can pick up the rein to move the tail over and stop the horse. Repeat this progression from the other side, as always.

As you get better at moving your shoulder spot slightly away, then begin to change the angle at which you’re asking it to move. Picture a clock, with 12 o’clock being straight forward, 1 o’clock a little to the right side, 2 o’clock a little more to the right, 3 o’clock straight to the right side, 4 o’clock at a slight angle backward, 5 o’clock at more of a backward angle, and 6 o’clock straight back. Work slowly around the clock face with Spot #5. Only ask for 1 to 3 steps at a time toward a particular number. If your spot doesn’t move, then go back to the preceding step bringing Spot #2 and Spot #4 together. Soon, you’ll be able to get Spot #5 to move in all of the clock directions.

Moving this spot teaches your horse the following tasks:

• Diagonals
• Canter leads off the front end
• Reverse arc circles
• Shoulder control, guiding your horse with his shoulders
• Slowing down in a collected manner by softening all the parts and muscles
• Collected transitions
• Side passes from the front end
• Stops with the front end
• Half passes and full passes
• Three-tracking
• Turns on the hindquarters
• Backing

The neatest part about all of this is that you get to observe all that you’ve taught your horse with a couple of hours of work. Your horse will lead better, stand better, trailer load better, and so much more.

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